WEDNESDAY, March 10, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Exercise has long been considered a “natural antidepressant.” Research suggests that depression rates began to rise as lockdowns prevented people from exercising regularly.
The result is based on multiple mental health surveys conducted among three consecutive groups of University of Pittsburgh students, nearly 700 total. The surveys were started first before the pandemic and then continued until the pandemic while using Fitbit wearable devices to track trends in physical activity.
The researchers found that in March 2020, when the U.S. lockdowns began, the number of steps students took on a daily basis decreased from 10,000 before the pandemic to an average of 4,600. At the same time, the clinical risk of depression rose from 32% to 61% between February and April 2020.
“It’s not clear that one caused the other,” warned study author Silvia Saccardo, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision-Making Sciences in Pittsburgh. That’s because exercise habits were just one of the “major lifestyle disorders” during the pandemic.
For example, socializing decreased by more than half (to less than 30 minutes per day), while screen time more than doubled (to more than five hours per day) and students slept about half an hour longer each day.
“There is a large body of literature suggesting a general relationship between physical activity and wellbeing in the form of anxiety, mood, and depression symptoms,” noted Saccardo.
In June last year, the research team conducted an additional experiment in which a subgroup of students started a two-week exercise program to accelerate going back to 10,000 steps per day.
Surprisingly, “this did not lead to an increase in mental well-being,” Saccardo said.
Exercise may need to be longer or “more intense” to register a mental health impact, she theorized. “It is possible that people who were active before the pandemic were more social, exercising with their friends, or doing team sports,” Saccardo said. Or: “It may be necessary to intervene more directly on mental health at the same time as physical activity.”
The study results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 2.
Lynn Bufka is Senior Director, Practice Transformation and Quality for the American Psychological Association. She said when targeting depression, “It’s unclear whether exercise alone is enough or whether exercise is best when combined with more traditional interventions like psychotherapy or medication.”
What is clear, Bufka said, is that “exercise can release endorphins and other brain chemicals that increase well-being, and exercise can serve as a positive activity, away from negative thoughts or behaviors that can exacerbate depression.”
The other thing to consider is that “there is often movement with others, which is natural social interaction,” noted Bufka. “Feeling safe and capable in our physical activities also supports our mood. We have a sense of control and domination of at least some aspects of our lives.”
Even in normal times, the challenge is figuring out what kind of exercise – and how much of it – is required to strengthen mental health. And these are not normal times, she said.
“In this particular case, the start of the pandemic and all the changes that went with it was a significant change in the lives of the participants,” Bufka said. “Participants had to adjust to a large number of life changes at the same time, so it would be really surprising to think that increased depression is simply due to a decrease in activity.”
As long as the pandemic lasted, she advised maintaining mental health by focusing on “general well-being”.
“In general, staying engaged is important,” said Bufka, whether it be with regard to physical activity, social connection, or intellectual challenge. “Have reasons to get up and start the day, even if it feels artificial to think about planning activities.”
Also, try to view current events as a challenge rather than a threat. “If this is difficult, find a trusted friend or family member who will support you and help you look at situations from different perspectives,” suggested Bufka.
There is more about exercise and mental health at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
SOURCES: Dr. Silvia Saccardo, Assistant Professor, Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; Lynn Bufka, PhD, Senior Director, Transformation and Quality of Practice, American Psychological Association; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2, 2021